Review: “Box Nine” By Jack O’ Connell (Novel)

Well, after reading Jack O’Connell’s excellent “Word Made Flesh” about three weeks ago, I was eager to read more of his novels. And, I thought that I’d start with a second-hand copy of O’Connell’s 1992 novel “Box Nine”. And what a novel it is 🙂

So, let’s take a look at “Box Nine”. Needless to say, this review may contain some SPOILERS.

This is the 2015 No Exit Press (UK) paperback edition of “Box Nine” that I read.

The story takes place in the fictional New England city of Quinsigamond. A new drug, lingo, has hit the streets. It lights up the language centres of the brain like a Christmas tree before eventually sending the user into a violent homicidal rage.

Lenore is a badass, heavy metal-obsessed speed freak whose main spiritual belief is in the power of her .357 magnum. She’s also a narcotics cop who, much to her disdain, has been paired with a mild-mannered scientist for the investigation into lingo…

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is wow! It is a masterpiece. This is an information-dense, intelligent, imaginative noir detective novel that is so well-written that you’ll be reading it as quickly as an action-thriller novel. It is a book that has the human depth of Winston Rowntree’s “Subnormality“, as much atmosphere as a cyberpunk novel, the uncensored weirdness of old beat literature (or maybe something a little bit like Warren Ellis’ “Crooked Little Vein”) and more cool-ness than you can shake a stick at. Seriously, this novel is awesome 🙂

This is a book that really has to be experienced first-hand to truly be appreciated. A mere review really doesn’t do it justice. And, like with “Word Made Flesh”, it probably isn’t for everyone either. But, I’ll try to describe it to the best of my abilities.

I should probably start by talking about the detective/thriller elements of this story. Like any good noir novel (and, yes, “The Maltese Falcon” is referenced in this book), this novel focuses on things like moral ambiguity, atmosphere, complex plotting and an intricate web of criminal intrigue. Although the investigation sometimes seems more like a background detail (when compared to all of the compelling characterisation, drama etc..) it is certainly well-written and well-plotted. Like a thriller novel, there are also quite a few story threads that are expertly brought together by the end of the story.

One interesting element of the detective parts of the story is how the story approaches the topic of policing and drugs. Not only is the novel’s main detective (Lenore) a morally-ambiguous gun nut who takes a lot of amphetamines, but the story also includes a brilliant satire of the war on drugs too. Whilst the story doesn’t shy away from the damage drugs can cause, the novel’s police and drug dealers are shown to exist in a symbiotic relationship of sorts.

But, although this is a detective story, the main thing that keeps this novel page-turningly compelling is the writing and the characterisation. Like a good cyberpunk or noir novel, this story is written in both a grippingly fast-paced way and an information-dense way. This links in absolutely perfectly with the novel’s themes of language, paranoia and stimulants. This story dazzles you with atmospheric descriptions, deep insights and complex drama at a hundred miles an hour and it is a joy to behold 🙂

The novel’s third-person narration is written in an intelligently informal way and this is one of those stories that has a wonderfully distinctive narrative voice that you’ll want to read more of. The narration flickers between “matter of fact”/thriller-style descriptions and more literary narration so quickly that you’ll read it as fast as the former and get the intellectual satisfaction of the latter. Seriously, this is the kind of novel that tells a high-brow story with the gripping intensity of a more low-brow story 🙂

The novel also includes some interesting experimental touches too. These take the form of conversation transcripts, talk radio excerpts and dictaphone messages from one of the other characters (which are related in breathless, paragraph-less “stream of consciousness” rambles). These segments really help to add some intensity and background depth to the story, although the dictaphone segments can – ironically- slow the story down a little.

The other thing that keeps this novel so brilliantly compelling are the characters 🙂 This novel devotes a lot of time to characterisation and, yet, all of this characterisation was so fascinating that it never really seemed like a distraction from the gripping, atmospheric story.

Lenore is an absolutely fascinating protagonist (plus, she listens to Iron Maiden too 🙂 ) who could have easily become a two-dimensional “Tank Girl“- like cartoon character in the hands of a lesser writer. But, here, she’s presented as a complex, flawed and intriguing character who is more interesting and original than the characters in many other novels.

The other characters are also really fascinating too. Whether it is Lenore’s shy, methodical and introverted twin brother Ike, some of the other detectives, some of the local gangsters, the owners of Lenore’s favourite restaurant, the boss of the local post office or the scientist that Lenore has to team up with, I cannot praise the characters enough 🙂 Not only are they interesting and well-written, but a lot of the novel’s characterisation also comes from character interactions and the contrast between different characters too.

Thematically, this novel is really interesting too. In addition to the story’s main theme of language and communication, the novel also tackles topics like loneliness, memory, drugs, books, politics, violence etc.. too. Seriously, this is one of those books that probably needs to be read multiple times in order to be fully appreciated.

In terms of length, this novel is really good too. Although this novel is 352 pages long, it manages to cram 450+ pages of storytelling into this space. In other words, this novel never really feels like it is too long and the story doesn’t suffer from the bloatedness that more modern novels can sometimes suffer from.

As for how this twenty-seven year old novel has aged, it has aged really well. Yes, it is clearly the product of a slightly more “edgy” decade (and a few descriptions/words in it would probably be frowned upon if written today) and there are a couple of brilliantly ’90s moments – like a hilarious scene where some gnarly 1990s surfer dudes perform Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” but, for the most part, this novel is pretty much timeless. In addition to still being very gripping and atmospheric, a lot of the novel’s satire has also aged astonishingly well too.

For example, the novel’s satirical depiction of paranoid, ranting talk radio hosts could easily be a satire of the more unsavoury parts of the modern internet. Likewise, the novel’s hilarious satire of the trendy, hipsterish part of Quinsigamond wouldn’t seem too out of place in the 2010s. The novel’s satire of things like police violence, corruption etc.. are also still reasonably relevant in the present day too.

All in all, this novel is a masterpiece 🙂 Yes, it probably isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but I absolutely loved it. It’s an intelligent, atmospheric, creative and complex novel that is as grippingly fast-paced as an action-thriller novel. But, as I mentioned earlier, this is one of those novels that has to be experienced in order to be fully appreciated. A mere review really doesn’t do it justice.

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get a very solid five.

Advertisements

Review: “Word Made Flesh” By Jack O’Connell (Novel)

A couple of days before I wrote this review, I was waiting for some books to arrive and wondering what I was going to read next when I noticed my copy of Jack O’Connell’s 1998 novel “Word Made Flesh” propped up against a stack of DVDs near my computer.

It had been there for several years, perhaps even a decade. It had been a mere decorative item right up until that point. If I remember rightly, I found this book in a charity shop in Brighton sometime during the late 2000s/early 2010s. I bought it purely on the strength of the cool-looking cover art, the “18 certificate”-style logo on the cover (for my US readers, an “18 certificate” is the UK equivalent of a “hard R” or “NC-17” film rating) and the critic quote that likened it to “Blade Runner“. It seemed really cool.

Yet, it languished near my computer for years before I actually thought about, you know, reading it. So, yes, this review has been a long time coming.

So, let’s take a look at “Word Made Flesh”. Needless to say, this review will contain some SPOILERS.

This is the 2005 No Exit Press (UK) paperback edition of “Word Made Flesh” that I read.

The story takes place in a New England city called Quinsigamond. It begins with a description of a man called Leo Tani being cruelly murdered by persons unknown. Then, we see an ex-police taxi driver called Gilrein being beaten up by two gangsters who are looking for something they believe that Gilrein owns. However, they are interrupted by one of Gilrein’s cop buddies called Oster, who scares them away.

Oster insists on driving Gilrein to a derelict printworks where the local police (who are more of a gang than a law enforcement agency) now reside. Gilrein hasn’t returned to this building since his wife, Ceil, was killed by a bomb blast there whilst investigating a case. Oster tries to convince Gilrein to re-join the police, but Gilrein refuses and they part on unfriendly terms.

Meanwhile, another taxi driver called Otto Langer talks to a mysterious passenger called the Inspector. He tells the Inspector of his younger days in a European city called Maisel. He talks about how he belonged to a Jewish sect called the Ezzenes, who were singled out for cruel, violent, genocidal persecution by the city’s authorities.

A while later, Gilrein is still puzzled by the threats against him from the gangsters and about Leo’s murder. So, he decides to investigate…

One of the first things that I will say about this book is that, although it isn’t for the faint-hearted, it is an astonishingly good novel 🙂 Imagine that Clive Barker, Neal Stephenson, William Burroughs and Raymond Chandler decided to sit down and write a novel together. If they did, the book they would produce would probably look a lot like “Word Made Flesh”.

In other words, this novel is a brilliantly unique combination of a disturbing horror novel, a detailed cyberpunk dystopia (without the computers), a work of surrealist beat literature and a complex noir detective story. And all of these different elements are blended together in a complex and seamless way that almost becomes it’s own new genre.

Still, when you start reading this book, it can be easy to mistake it for a horror novel. And a very potent one at that!

The story begins with a macabre flourish of extreme horror and chilling dystopian horror that will make even the most jaded of horror fiction and dystopian fiction readers wince and recoil with shocked and unsettled disgust. Yet, if you have both the stomach and the stoutness of mind for the first 40-50 pages, then the story begins to become more than just a shocking and deeply unsettling extreme horror story.

This story, like Neal Stephenson’s “The Diamond Age” is a complex story that will require your full attention. It isn’t easy reading in any sense of the word, but it is well worth putting in the effort. Not only is the writing in this novel filled with atmospheric descriptions, historical/cultural allusions, realistic dialogue, respect for the reader’s intelligence and lots of brilliantly quotable turns of phrase – but this novel also has a wonderfully intelligent level of thematic and narrative complexity too.

Basically, if you can understand the labyrinthine plot of a Raymond Chandler novel, then you’ll be in your element here. If not, you might get confused. And, yes, you need to pay attention when reading this novel.

For example, the solution to the murder mystery at the beginning of the novel is never explicitly spelled out, yet the reader is provided with enough clues to work out who probably did it (and why). Likewise, unless you pay careful attention to various pieces of backstory, then some of the later events of the story may not make sense. This is a story that respects the reader’s intelligence and demands that you think about it.

Thematically, this story is really interesting. One of the major themes, consistent with novels like “Snow Crash” by Neal Stephenson and some of William Burroughs’ novels is the idea of language and/or knowledge being a cross between a virus and a magical thing. In essence, “Word Made Flesh” is a story about stories (or a “metafiction” if you want to sound pretentious).

More particularly, it is a novel about the power of stories. This includes a woman whose entire life is shaped by seeing a film about a mysterious 19th century murder case, a man who repeats his life story to all those who will listen, a man who believes that he can hack people’s minds using language, a plague spread by a book, some fourth-wall breaking moments and a chilling tale about how an attempt to document an unspeakable atrocity (by turning it into a story) ends up inadvertently glorifying the perpetrator.

Another interesting theme in the novel is the theme of skin. This is probably more of a motif than a theme, but there’s a lot of skin-related imagery and events in this story. Although this is partially there to add an unsettling atmosphere to the story, it also possibly has some metaphorical significance too. This is because there’s one part of the story that talks about how people are separated by language, how everyone is alone because we only see others from the outside etc… So, presumably the emphasis on skin is related to this theme.

The novel also includes a lot of other themes (eg: religion, history, the nature of evil, mental health/PTSD, culture, authority etc..) too, but I should probably get on with the review.

The novel’s characters are extremely well-written and are a motley crew of washed-up, eccentric and/or morally ambiguous characters who are all unique individuals with realistic (if occasionally strange) motivations. They are all people who have been influenced or affected by their pasts in some way or another too.

This novel is also wonderfully atmospheric too. The story’s settings are left deliberately ambiguous, with the reader given enough information to picture individual locations – but with enough vagueness to make the larger “world” of the story seem like something unsettlingly strange and confusing. Along with the excellent writing (possibly influenced by writers like Neal Stephenson, Raymond Chandler and William Burroughs), this really helps to lend the novel a compelling atmosphere that will make you want to read more.

In terms of length and pacing, this novel is really good. Whilst the story is a little bit slow-paced, the story’s atmosphere, intelligence and writing will ensure that it remains compelling nonetheless. Likewise, at 314 pages, this novel never really feels bloated. Seriously, most writers would be lucky to cram a story like this into 500 pages, let alone 314.

In terms of how this twenty-one year old novel has aged, it has aged extremely well. Not only are the novel’s moments of horror still extremely effective, but the novel’s themes and complexities are pretty much timeless. A lot of what helps to preserve this novel is the ambiguity about when it is set (eg: the future? the 1990s? the 1950s? etc..) – this lends the story a slightly timeless quality which means that it still holds up really well to this day.

All in all, this is a unique, creative and intelligent novel that I’m really glad that I read 🙂 Yes, it probably isn’t for everyone. But, if you’re open-minded, if you don’t mind intelligent storytelling, if you aren’t easily-shocked and if you want to read something that is like a mixture of Clive Barker, Neal Stephenson, William Burroughs and Raymond Chandler – then you will absolutely love this novel 🙂

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get a five.